Essay by Lucy R. Lippard
From the introduction of Who Is Ana Mendieta?
I met Ana Mendieta when I gave a lecture in Iowa City in 1975. At a reception afterwards, she quite literally cornered me and told me about her work and her life story: exiled from revolutionary Cuba by her parents, with her older sister Raquelin, she spent sixteen years in Iowa, first in a group home for disturbed children and then in three foster homes, a boarding school, college and university, where she became an artist. We kept in touch; I began to publish her work; we saw each other often once she moved to New York in 1978 and her work became known. In 1981, I went to Cuba with her and a group of artists and feminists and we hung out with the new generation of young avant-garde artists there. Her volatile alliance with Carl Andre, an old friend and political comrade of mine, was surprising, but what the hell, it seemed to work. Still, most of us who knew both of these complex characters well were a bit wary, given the heavy drinking and the fact that neither of them pulled any punches.
I was driving back from summer in Maine when I heard on the radio that a sculptor had fallen to her death from a 34th floor apartment…. and that it was Ana. Carolee Schneemann, Mary Miss and I organized a memorial for her at the Center for Inter-American Relations (we didn’t know some Latinos called it the CIA). Foolishly or courageously, Carl attended, as did Ana’s family, which made for an extremely tense situation. She was buried in Iowa, where her extraordinary early works had been executed in the early 1970s, near the homes of her mother and brother. In the ensuing years before Andre’s final trial for Ana’s murder, the art world was polarized by their opinions of the case and the degree to which friendship, loyalty, and politics were brought to bear. Some defended him, some vilified him, some of us took the unpopular position that he was innocent until proven guilty. No one really knew what had happened that night; Carl claimed that he didn’t know either. They had both been drinking. After he was acquitted, however, it became even more difficult to deal with the possibilities of what might have happened, and his reluctance to talk about Ana. Yet the whole affair was merely a blip in his continued art-world success. If career competition (all too familiar to many women artists) was really a motive, which I doubt, he needn’t have worried.
This is the story, more or less, told in the graphic novella. The question “Who is Ana Mendieta?” is never answered, and it would take a far deeper analysis to even address it. Mendieta was unique even though her art could be seen as representing Everywoman. The Silueta series for which she is best known often featured blood, burial, and death. Much has been made of their prescient resemblances to her own demise. She once said that all of her art was about Eros and life/death, and she did have premonitions of an early death. But when I was asked by a DA during one of Andre’s trials whether she could have committed suicide, my answer was decidedly not. She was too vital, too engaged, too angry, too excited about life to give up.
But this book is not about contributions to contemporary art, or a tragic romance gone awry. It is a diatribe against violence against women, an activist protest in itself, one which Mendieta would have approved even before her death. When she was still a student at the University of Iowa, after a fellow student was raped, she “performed” two harshly graphic rape pieces in which her own bloodied, naked body was discovered in a room, and in the woods, by the unsuspecting audience. Art against rape was relatively common in the feminist art movement during the 1970s, one high point being Suzanne Lacy’s and Leslie Labowitz’s public protest performance In Mourning and in Rage, but I doubt if any had a more devastating impact.
Heir to Latin photo-novellas and to the wave of women’s comics that rose up in the 1960s, the graphic novel form is ideally suited to insurrection. Purely textual rants can be pedantic and off-putting. Graphically enhanced with facial expression, body language, and incisive draftsmanship, they become accessible and effective. A number of activist artists have turned to the comics to communicate complicated issues in simplified form. (I once made comics myself as “Lucy the Lip”; the heroine was “Polly Tickle.”) Christine Redfern and Caro Caron have taken on the Mendieta story as a microcosm of the societal fear of women that in turn engenders women’s fear of men. (My only quarrel with their interpretation – and its usually (appropriately) strident tone — is the treatment of Sol LeWitt as a patriarchal accomplice. Despite his 1967 “mini-skirt” comment – which none of us noticed in a period of zero feminist consciousness by men or women in the art world– no well-known male artist supported women and their work more than LeWitt.)
(Christine Redfern: My apologies to Sol LeWitt for presenting him as a “patriarchal accomplice”; he just happened to be the only minimalist I could find a decent photograph of to provide as a drawing reference — and I did find his Mini-art quote in Artforum pretty funny too.)
There have been several books and catalogues on Mendieta since her death, Olga Viso’s impressive biography/ anthology prime among them. I’ve worried that Ana would be “canonized” (or sensationalized) not so much for her life and art as for her death, like Eva Hesse, who died of brain cancer fifteen years earlier. There were curious parallels between Hesse and Mendieta’s lives: both were exiled to orphanages with their older sisters due to international conflicts; both were deprived of one parent; both were talented, beautiful, and neurotic; both had troubled marriages to fellow artists; both died in their thirties as they enjoyed growing success. Mendieta, who was older when she was exiled, became a fiercely ambitious advocate for her own salvation. Her return to Cuba (like Hesse’s return to Germany in the 1960s) was emotionally fraught, even though her father had by then been released from prison. (Ana gave me his trial transcript and we were going to make a video about the generations of her family and the revolution, but we didn’t get the grant.)
Feminism in the 1970s was, among many other things, a campaign to convince women that they didn’t have to be men to succeed, that sisterhood and female identity were desirable, even preferable to being one of the boys. Many works from the 1970s were gender-benders, whatever their makers’ sexual preferences. Mendieta was exposed to a number of feminist visiting artists while still in Iowa, among them Martha Rosler and Martha Wilson, both of whom worked with their own bodies to convey personal/political messages. As a child, her sister Raquelin recalls, Ana had wanted to be an actress, or was already an actress, and this played out in the performative aspect of all of her major work as an artist. In graduate school, citing Marcel Duchamp’s mustached Mona Lisa in two pieces, she sat beside a male friend as he shaved off his beard and she glued the hair to her own face. (There are parallels to Lynda Benglis’s famous double dildo piece: if you’re going to make it in the art world, you’d better have one of these.) Mendieta’s 1972 Glass on Body, in which she distorted her face into grimaces, recalls Wilson’s perfection/imperfection piece, and so forth. These were ideas in the air and thanks to the University of Iowa Intermedia Program, headed by her mentor and lover Hans Breder, Mendieta was exposed to some of the best.
Mendieta’s politics are rarely explored in the writings that followed her death. Although as a preteen in Cuba, she had distributed counter-revolutionary pamphlets with her sister, at the behest of her father, whose Catholic faith had cut short his initial sympathies with the Revolution (he was accused of collaborating with the CIA and imprisoned for years), she became a leftist after arriving in New York and was given to Marxist proclamations, which helped her reintegrate into revolutionary Cuba and the relatives she had left behind — some of whom were sympathetic to the Revolution, and some of whom weren’t. She returned to the island seven times between 1980 and 1983. After her grandparents’ deaths, she left for the last time, announcing that she would never return, having run afoul of government restrictions, although she was the only exiled Cuban who had been permitted to make public work in the country. Certainly American leftists (myself included) tend to be naïve about the realities of everyday life in countries whose ideologies we admire. (Cuban artist José Bedia, noting Mendieta’s stubborn denial of Cuban artists’ precarious positions, said wryly, “we have to live inside the theory.”) Certainly Italy, where Ana announced she would stay “forever,” offered the verve of Cuba with a far more relaxed and less personally charged political atmosphere.
When Ana was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1983, she arrived unannounced at my door and gave me a black ceramic pot with a hand-painted red hammer and sickle, announcing that this was her “revolutionary soul” and I should keep it for her. On one of her visits home, I told her that while it was sitting on a shelf over my desk, her pot had emitted a startling puff of smoke. I asked her if she’d used it to store gunpowder (for her volcano works); she was amused and denied it. But the fact that her “soul” was acting up independently was compatible with her belief in magic. Her longstanding interest in aboriginal Cuba and so-called “primitive” and ancient religions in Mexico and Europe informed the Siluetas, which were adopted by the once-powerful feminist “goddess movement” in the U.S. (I had hoped to have her Silueta in fireworks on the cover of my 1983 book Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, but was overruled by the publishers.) The Afro-Cuban religions of Santería and Abakuá were part of her passionate adoption of Cubanidad. Mendieta’s goddess was both a healer and an avenger.
“There is a devil inside me,” wrote Mendieta on at least two occasions. It was no doubt the incarnation of her outrage at being ripped from a happy childhood within a privileged extended family in a warm Latin country and exiled to a hostile foreign orphanage and foster homes in the cold American Midwest, where she was treated with incomprehension and disdain. Although she has been described as “white” by critics, probably because of her upper-class background, Mendieta was in fact “brown,” and strongly identified with people of color. Her personal history was also at the heart not only of her anger, but of an ongoing sense of isolation. Although her own body was her raw material, her art was never narcissistic, but rather a process of self-discovery, self-affirmation, and the exorcism of pain. In a 1982 text, she quoted the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset: “To be a hero, to be heroic, is to be oneself.” It was this conviction that nourished her art and made it significant. It may also have killed her. Tact was not Ana’s strong point. She conveyed an incredible intensity, an energy that could be simultaneously compelling and abrasive, always tinged by an underlying vulnerability that made it easier to empathize with her excesses.
Ana’s death is one of millions that, despite four decades of feminist struggle, remain underestimated — social crimes that have yet to be fully confronted. The issue is all too present today, in view of the unsolved murders of hundreds of women around the city of Juarez and in northern Mexico. The very directness of the graphic novella is an ideal vehicle for the outrage women feel about the extent of domestic and general violence against us. May there be many more visual outcries like this one, to avenge the loss of women like Ana Mendieta.